Academic journal article Afterimage

In Search of the Telephone Opera: From Communications to Art

Academic journal article Afterimage

In Search of the Telephone Opera: From Communications to Art

Article excerpt

I. The World Wide Web As Communication Art

Listen to me now or listen to me later... Gonna get it together, watch it. Gonna get together, Ma Bell. Like Ma Bell, I got the ill communication! -- The Beastie Boys[1]

It is in the process of the use of equipment that we must actually encounter the character of the equipment. -- Martin Heidegger[2]

When logging on to local Internet service providers, the first sound heard is a familiar one: the reassuring seven tones of a local telephone call. While not quite as homey as the clicks of a rotary dial (which are now to the ear as the lithograph is to the eye), these dial tones anchor explorations of the World Wide Web.

Links between the telephone and new media forms are not as circumstantial as they might first appear. One might begin with the oft-repeated maxim that "cyberspace is where you are when you're on the phone." It is hard to overestimate the impact of Bell Labs on the history of computing, and the net's nodal construction is based on the model of the interstate telephone system. The 1990s have seen growing pressures exerted by telecommunication companies like Nynex and Pacbell to determine how online environments will be billed -- which is one if not the defining issue affecting the next growth phase of the web. And since the advent of cellular systems, telephones are suddenly sexy again.

This present relevance of "telephony" prompts a reconsideration of the history of art as communication in the twentieth century, and the related issue of how technologies carry the weight of art. With the instantaneity of electronic mail bringing about a resurgence of epistolary culture, the Internet is -- like telephony -- a communicative medium par excellence. The web has excited cultural producers (a term both more expansive and less troublesome than "artist") as no technological development has since the arrival of video. From the start, people have been drawn to its communicative properties, its ability to create a dialogue between producer and audience, the first step towards the hazily grasped goal of fully interactive aesthetic practice. With the web, the computer becomes an instrument unique in the history of audio-visual media -- for the first time the same machine serves as the site of production, distribution and reception.

II. Telephone Art

Those looking for sophisticated strategies to transform the web into a medium capable of bearing the weight of the aesthetic object would do well to examine earlier communications media. Will the movement from communications medium to art form be more successfully negotiated on the web than it was over the telephone? One way to generate new questions, if not answers, is to investigate the history of how artists have utilized the open and responsive channels of other, earlier media to effect aesthetic interventions.

Has there ever been any important art created specifically for the telephone? And is this distinct from the issue of whether there has ever been any art on the telephone? A distinction is needed, because in its early era, telephonic communications functioned as proto-mass-medium distribution systems, along the lines of contemporary cable television. Media historian Carolyn Marvin has unearthed a fascinating history of the use of the telephone as a point-to-point conveyor of information and entertainment at the turn of the century. Starting as early as 1881, there were experiments in Europe and the United States using telephone lines to pipe news, sermons and entertainments from one place to another. Royalty had live lines installed from the opera house, heads of state from parliament and "nickel-in-the-slot" public telephone stations piped in the latest from the popular theater. The most sustained point-to-point telephonic distribution system lasted over three decades in Hungary, where Telefon Hirmondo was a fixture from 1892 to 1925. Targeted at the Magyar-speaking, nationalistic upper classes, Telefon Hirmondo offered a schedule of market reports, news of politics and foreign affairs, sports and nightly performances from the likes of the Royal Hungarian Opera House and the Folk Theater. …

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